There are certain events that I like to go to every year, especially when it comes to Japanese festivals. I would like to attend Obon more often, but it’s hard to find places where they celebrate Obon. The one that I’ve done for many, many years is the Cherry Blossom Festival.
This year was the 46th Annual Cherry Blossom Festival. A little known fact is that the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival is that it’s the second largest in the United States. The largest happens to be in Washington DC. The first Cherry Blossom Festival held in San Francisco was in 1967. Every year it gets bigger and bigger. Last year there were 200,000 people who visited the Cherry Blossom Festival of the course of 2 weekends.
This year the weekends the festival were the 13th, 14th, 20th and 21st of April. I usually attend on the second Saturday, this year it happened to be on 4/20.
And it seems that I’m not the only person to find it interesting. Every year I see more people gathering to watch the purification ceremony. It’s great to see people take an interest in a different culture to the extent that they observe a ceremony.
After that, I typically wander the festival for the rest of the day. There’s so much to see and do there. There are so many vendors, most local. There’s also a place for local artists to also sell their wares. The restaurants in the Japantown Center Mall set up booths outside of their restaurant to help serve food to the hungry masses. They serve a variety of Japanese food. There is also an outdoor food area where they serve a variety food, but it’s largely focused on Japanese. Many of those booths are fundraisers for local non-profit organizations. The food is really good. Even better, you also get to help some local organizations.
There’s also a nice little area set aside for beer and sake. There’s nothing better than a cup of hot sake on a cold morning. It’s usually my second stop, right after the purification ceremony. I also used to eat some takoyaki (fish or octopus-filled wheat balls with a very tasty sauce). They changed the filling of the takoyaki this year. It was beef instead of fish. That made the fact that I can’t eat it anymore anyways all that much better to deal with.
Like you can imagine, for someone who has Celiac or otherwise can’t have gluten, finding food is a bit more tricky. I generally find that if I stick to simple rolls that I can get something to eat. And there is plenty of sushi to find and eat… just remember that if you are gluten-free, make sure you bring your own gluten-free soy sauce or tamari.
There’s also plenty of music. There are 2 stages at the Cherry Blossom Festival: one on Webster and one in Peace Plaza. The stage at Peace Plaza is generally graced by more traditional acts… and some Japanese pop culture. The stage at Webster is usually graced by local acts. There’s almost always some music on once it’s after noon.
And, a little known event, they bust open the sake casks that make up the altar area for the mikoshi during the purification ceremony and start giving out free sake. They do ask for donations, but it’s not required. They serve all the sake until they are out. In previous years they didn’t always ask for ID, this year was different as I was asked for ID when getting some free sake.
I can’t even begin to cover everything that’s there. They also have exhibits of traditional crafts such as bonsai, origami, ikebana. They also have hourly tea ceremonies.
It’s always an amazing time… and it’s free. You don’t have to pay to get in. It’s worth the trip, unless you’re not a big fan of a lot of people. There are huge crowds there. If you are willing to brave the crowds, it’s certainly worth going to.
Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival website: http://sfcherryblossom.org/